It’s Halloween weekend and like a lot of people I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time watching scary movies. I prefer psychological horror films to the gory kind and one of my favorites isWhat Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The celluloid showdown between screen greats Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was an inspired pairing. I’d even put the two alongside other great screen duos such as Gable and Leigh and Bogie and Bacall. The 1962 thriller, about two former movie star sisters — one an invalid, the other deranged — living in a decaying Hollywood mansion, is more than just a novelty, it’s riffed on the real-life legends of Davis and Crawford, who were rumored to be rivals during their Warner Brothers heydays. It proved to be a massive and very unexpected box office hit, grossing more than $9 million on $1 million budget when it was released on Halloween 1962. Davis was nominated as best actress for both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for her unhinged portrayal. The film’s success also launched a slew of similar chillers throughout the 1960s starring actresses of a certain age, known and Baby Jane endures as rite-of-passage viewing for gay people through this day.
While Baby Jane remains an incredibly effective chiller (it has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), part of the film’s enduring appeal is due to stories of the alleged feud between Crawford and Davis. As longtime professionals, the two denied the tales during the making of the film. The rumors made for fun reading, however, and Davis did her part to perpetuate then in the years that followed. The relationship between the two has inspired the upcoming Ryan Murphy-produced anthology series simply titled Feud, with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Crawford and Davis, respectively, which is loosely based on Shaun Considine’s fascinating book The Divine Feud. Baby Jane was very tepidly remade in 1991 with real-life sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and the story is so powerful that every few years there’s the threat of yet another redo. In the 1990s there was talk of giving the characters a sex change and transposing the story into the boxing arena. A few years ago tough guy director Walter Hill, known for his action-packed epics like The Getaway and The Warriors, was reported to be developing a new version. It’s unlikely the original will ever be bettered.
Charles Busch (right), one of the brightest luminaries of the American stage, has been a fan of the film since since he first saw it as a precocious 8-year-old boy. His lifelong love of classic cinema has informed many of his most famous works including Die Mommy Die and Psycho Beach Party, both of which were adapted into films which are also ideal viewing for Halloween weekend. Charles and I discussed Baby Jane below.
You recorded an audio commentary, along with John Epperson, better-known as Lypsinka, for the Baby Jane DVD. How did you relationship with this movie begin?
My father took us to see it when I was 8-years-old.
This must have been a creepy experience for an 8-year-old kid.
Well, I was a gay 8-year-old so I was sophisticated already. I remember really getting into it. I was obsessed with actresses from the womb and Baby Jane is actress heaven. These two great stars who’d fallen on hard times were paired and in 1962 that was part of the appeal. These were legendary bigger than life stars who were thought of as rivals and who hadn’t done anything terribly exciting in about 10 years and they were paired. What I find interesting about the movie is there are numerous cases in film history when a director and stars will take a movie that lesser hands and transform it from what would have been a forgotten programmer.
Bette Davis certainly made the most of her role, which might have been ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actress.
Bette Davis was a great, great film actress. Maybe it’s because of where she was at in her career at the time that she really went for broke and delivered this audacious, brave performance. You’re both terrified of her and terrified for her. Here’s a movie where she has to serve a dead rat to her sister, but she makes you understand it. [Laughs] That’s probably how I’d act if I were serving a dead rat to my sister. She showed us the humanity and complexity.
Do you think Davis and Crawford really feuded or was this drummed up for publicity?
Well, at Warner Bros. during the 1940s Bette Davis had been the queen of the lot and her career had peaked when Crawford came in and won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce. I’m sure for two very ambitious actresses that probably wasn’t a great turf to share. From everything I’ve read, though, it was very drummed up. They were both very, very professional and knew how important this movie was for both of them. They were very similar in some ways. Their careers always came first. They both had a series of unsuccessful marriages and financial reversals, yet there were also some very fundamental differences. Bette Davis was always recognized as a very serious actress, while Crawford was always fighting for a kind of legitimacy that seemed to elude her. Crawford enjoyed being a movie star and all that implied, while Davis was one of the first anti-stars that rejected the superficial trappings of stardom.
Both actresses have many classics on their resumes. Where does Baby Jane land on their filmographies?
It’s the last really great movie either of them made. It’s a real pity, especially with Davis. She was about 54 when she made it and she was at a creative peak in this film. It did launch her on some other big-budget horror-suspense movies like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and Dead Ringer until she finally became tawdrier and tawdrier. Crawford’s next movies were all lower-budget exploitation films. I find it frustrating because she still had possibilities and you wish she’d been tested more.
Why did they kept accepting roles in these low-budget horror films during this period?
They had financial problems at times and children to support. In Davis’ case she had a mentally-challenged kid in an institution and financial responsibilities. They had to take what was offered. I’m sure Crawford wouldn’t have done Trog if she’d been offered a revival of The Glass Menagerie. [Laughs]
When the film was released Davis got the lion’s share of the attention and an Oscar nomination, but I think Crawford’s performance is underrated. She’s playing against such a huge, appropriately over-the-top turn by Davis, yet she holds her own in their scenes together.
Well, she’s a star. There are remarkable tight close-ups of her face and those eyes and that bone structure. Ordinary people don’t look like that and have kind of intense charisma. I think she’s a simpler actress than Davis. Crawford tended to play one thing at a time, whereas Davis had so many colors in her pallet to draw from. Crawford holds her own because she’s such a strong personality and had magnetic charisma.
The film was surprisingly a huge hit at the box office. Why do you think audiences responded to it so strongly?
I think Psycho, which came out in 1960, was as much an influence on Baby Jane as something like Sunset Boulevard. It’s about the inhabitants of this dark house and the exterior world is so brightly lit. Psycho was such a big hit that it was probably very much on peoples’ minds. Warner Bros. thought nobody would be interested in a film with two has-been actresses so they wouldn’t give them any money. Finally Seven Arts gave them a very small budget and it was shot quickly. Sometimes limitations like that are to your advantage. I’ve read they didn’t have money to do proper rear screen projection for the driving scenes so they actually stuck a camera on the car when Bette Davis driving around. We sometimes laugh now when we see old films with obvious rear projection so this gave it more of a contemporary look.
Have you ever encountered any real-life Baby Janes?
It’s interesting in L.A. when you go to Ralph’s supermarket late at night, you see those people in the aisles. You see Baby Janes and the Victor Buono characters — these grotesque painted-up old women in the supermarket late at night and you think they came here when they were young to be an actress and this is what they turned into. You see them on the street. There’s a level of grotesquerie in L.A. that you don’t see in any other city I’ve been in. A lot of people show up with the dream of being a movie star. Few of them succeed, but a lot of them stick around.
Why does this film have such enduring appeal for gay audiences?
It’s one of those handful of movies you have to see to get your gay card. There’s All About Eve, Auntie Mame, Sunset Boulevard, Valley of the Dolls, Mommie Dearest, The Women… Here, you’ve got bigger-than-life actresses, fabulous bitchy dialogue that’s like a big juicy steak both actresses are tearing apart with their bare teeth. [Laughs] It’s about the movies. I don’t know why, but often gay people have an interest in Hollywood of the past. Traditionally, it is one of the classics of gay cinema. It’s interesting that all of those movies, except for The Women, were directed by very heterosexual men. The two real totems are Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve were both written and directed by very straight men.
Watch the 50th anniversary DVD trailer for the film below.